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Hitting a 'brick wall' was good for this Microsoft exec

Jenny Lay-Flurrie has spent years making Microsoft products more accessible for others. One day, she could w...

Posted: Dec 4, 2018 2:51 PM
Updated: Dec 4, 2018 2:51 PM

Jenny Lay-Flurrie has spent years making Microsoft products more accessible for others. One day, she could work on a project that will improve her own life.

Microsoft's chief accessibility officer happens to be deaf. She currently relies on human interpreters, lip reading, apps that translate speech into text and a trusty standby to do her job.

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"I have to have my notebook with me ... a pen and paper is a good thing," she told CNN.

But advances in artificial intelligence could soon allow technologists to design a digital sign language interpreter. Lay-Flurrie thinks Microsoft could be the company that builds one.

Lay-Flurrie joined Microsoft (MSFT) from T-Mobile (TMUS) in 2005 for a job managing consumer support across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She became more involved with the tech firm's accessibility efforts over time, and landed her current job two years ago.

Her deafness was caused by a childhood bout with measles and numerous ear infections. Mild hearing loss didn't stop Lay-Flurrie from studying music in college, but her condition later became much more severe.

'Brick wall moments'

A career in tech has not always been easy for the British executive, who now lives in Redmond, Washington, where Microsoft is headquartered.

Her first major setback in the workplace came early on, when she turned down a promotion that would have required her to manage a team that wasn't based in the same location.

"I got it in my head that there was no way I could tackle that job ... I was using analogue hearing aids which didn't work with a mobile phone," she said.

But her boss wouldn't take no for an answer. With his support and help from a government-sponsored program, she was able to switch to digital hearing aids that allowed her to stay in touch with her team. Her career progressed.

"I call these 'brick wall moments' and every person gets them, whether they have a disability or not," she said. "What matters is what you do with them."

Life at Microsoft

Lay-Flurrie has made her mark at Microsoft.

She has overseen major initiatives including the creation of a "Disability Answer Desk" that handles up to 300,000 phone calls per year. She hosts hackathons focused on making Microsoft's products more accessible.

Lay-Flurrie also started a hiring program for people with autism at Microsoft, and is working on ways to empower employees with mental health issues.

In 2014, she was recognized by the Obama White House for her work on accessibility issues.

Xbox for everyone

Another major highlight is the Xbox adaptive controller, which makes gaming easier for players with limited mobility. It was the result of one of the company's hackathons.

"It was designed with and for people with disabilities," she said. "Xbox engaged with a myriad of different organizations to get their feedback ... what they did want to see, what they didn't want to see."

It was the process of creation that makes her most excited about the future.

"I want to see that replicated," she said, adding that accessibility projects often fail because companies don't engage with their customers.

The importance of accessibility

Asked whether it makes business sense for companies to spend money on accessibility, Lay-Flurrie didn't hesitate.

"Heck yes," she said. "No company wants to exclude people from their products ... when you are not prioritizing accessibility, you are excluding people, whether you realize it or not."

Lay-Flurrie still faces difficulties in the workplace. Sometimes she finds herself in crowded meeting rooms where many people are speaking at once.

"That's where you need to be your own best self advocate," she said. "You need to be empowered enough to say 'you guys need to stop talking over one another.' "

But she wasn't always confident enough to stand up for herself.

"I was taught to do that by strong mentors and advocates," she said. "I was told 'you need to be asking for what you need to be successful. Your deafness should never stop you.' "

The busy executive still plays the piano, for example.

"Music has never been a purely auditory experience for me ... music is far more than sound and vibration," she said.

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